Let’s face it: community meetings have a pretty bad reputation. Perhaps you think of angry constituents at local town halls, with dispassionate elected officials dodging their questions. Or maybe you recall the neighborhood planning meeting where architects and planners showed pictures of streetscapes and hard-to-read site plans to you and ten of your like-minded neighbors. Regardless of the scene you imagine, we can bet it’s not as productive, representative or empowering as you’d like it to be.

At Raising Places, we have designed a structure for community engagement that goes well beyond the typical town hall meeting. We’d like to share some of these principles with you, in the hopes that you can up your own community engagement game.

1. Let locals lead

Often community meetings begin with experts at the front of the room. Whether it’s planning consultants or government officials, this spatial arrangement subtly says, “We, the outsiders with power, know best.” This in turn makes residents feel less sure of themselves, and sometimes question why they are even needed.

At the SoMa Ideas Lab, design team member Raquel Redondiez exchanges ideas with an attendee about the team's work.

Our Raising Places events were intentionally designed to be different. Rather than a central stage and presentation, we distributed stations around the room, each with a couple large posters and a handful of design team members. Attendees were encouraged to come in, grab food and make their way around the room. Along the way, if they wanted to hear more about the research or design ideas, they could ask the design team members, all of whom were emerging leaders either living in, or with strong ties to, the community. This not only reinforces the impression that the project is community-owned, it actually gives every design team member multiple opportunities to interact, build relationships and represent the work. In other words, the event is a leadership opportunity for the team in the community who will ultimately carry the project forward. We as facilitators simply had to prep them, support the creation of their materials, and get out of the way.

2. Share work in progress

Many community meetings include charts and graphs - numbers-based information about a community, such as its demographics or crime rates. However, while quantitative data has its value, this information can be confusing or even cause undue stress because of its lack of accessibility.

In contrast, our Ideas Lab posters were covered with qualitative data from the design team’s research - photos and stories of people from the community, people that they might even know, or certainly could relate to. Everyone from folks in political office to children were represented on the posters; including their quotes and stories was a small way to bring their voices into the room. Though we also synthesized the information and wrote insights, sharing “raw data” signals that our interpretations weren’t the only ones that mattered, and that others were invited to hear what we’d heard and draw their own conclusions.

An insight about public transit is surrounded by community research data points at the North Wilkesboro Ideas Lab.

Similarly, our Action Lab posters included more developed ideas, including photos and descriptions, but the posters appeared imperfect. Text was hand-written, images were clearly pulled from the internet (and sometimes collaged together), and some sections weren’t even complete yet. This supported the overall message that we feel good about our work, but it’s incomplete without the community’s input. The more we left strategically unfinished, the more residents would step in to fill in the blanks.

3. Invite open-ended participation

In a nod to democracy, most community meetings involve some type of voting process, but often the set of options is limited to concepts that have been pre-vetted for feasibility and viability. Few people question where these options came from, or if they are truly the only relevant ones. In other words, if you ask me whether I prefer A or B, I can tell you, but what if I’d really prefer C?

At our Ideas Lab, the tables held blank sheets of paper. Our design teams had drawn some starter sketches, with typical adult “I haven’t drawn anything in 20 years” art quality, and this sent the message that these early ideas were just that - early ideas. Attendees were encouraged to read or hear about the research, then write or draw their own ideas, and no idea would be rejected. Signs around the room encouraged quantity over quality, and that this was a judgment-free zone. In response, each Ideas Lab garnered well over 100 ideas. Was every idea a surefire winner? Of course not. But was every idea considered, and did every idea give its creator the satisfaction of contributing? Absolutely.

A resident sketches ideas at the Hudson design team's community event.

At our Action Lab, each concept had a poster for Open Questions. These were opportunities for attendees to respond with their ideas and opinions, giving the design team some targeted input on issues they were still undecided about. The Open Questions also allowed attendees to see that these ideas, though much farther along in their development, were still incomplete without their feedback.

"I’ve been involved in endless conversations about how you do community engagement. Often the models that get presented are very complex, difficult to understand, and burdensome. This process is fast. It shows everybody - whether you want to draw a picture, or place a vote - you can have a voice in this. You don’t have to have a PhD. Whatever way you want to communicate is fine." – Colleen Mooney, Executive Director, SBCC Thrive LA

4. Plan multiple levels of engagement

Public meetings can be intimidating. Often participants are asked to come up to the front and state their question. This might mean that they are speaking into a microphone in front of 500 people! (Eek!) Plus, we find that the folks in opposition to whatever is being discussed tend to be most vocal, while the supporters remain quiet. We see this as a majorly missed opportunity for input, discourse and  democracy.

Our meetings did not have a "for or against” structure. Every concept invited its own discussion. And that discussion could be as public or private as each person wanted - often it was with just one design team member. We heard that these intimate, one-on-one conversations were extremely satisfying for both sides. One participant at the Valley of the Chiefs Ideas Lab said, “Usually at things like this, I do all the listening. Today, I was listened to.”

For even less interaction, introverts were welcome. If people wanted to cruise through, take it all in, and not talk to anyone, they could do so. Everyone was given a strip of voting dots, which was an easy way to encourage contribution - simply stick them on the ideas that they like.

At the North Wilkesboro Ideas Lab, a resident signs up to join a group working to improve nutritional food access in the community.

And if, on the other hand, someone was extremely passionate about an idea and wanted to contribute more substantially to its development, we had concept sign-up sheets. Community meetings usually have a general sign-in sheet, which implies that at best, people will be "added to our mailing list.” Our sign-up sheet meant, “I would like to donate some of my time, talent or treasure to making this idea happen,” and people who signed up promptly received a follow up. In fact, many pilots happening in our communities are being led or supported by these new rounds of volunteer team members.

5. Create short feedback loops

The most common narrative we hear surrounding community meetings, at least from the community’s perspective is, "We had the meeting, and then nothing happened.” This might mean that the project stalled and nothing actually did happen. Or, more likely, it could mean that the project kept moving, but the community did not hear about it. We would argue that these two scenarios are effectively the same.

The principle of “short feedback loops” imbues a lot of our community engagement efforts. This starts when folks are at the event. If a participant shares an interesting story or example, design team members write that down on a Post-It and stick it up on the wall, among the other data points. Now it has gone from being shared with one person, to being present for all future passers-by to see. (And I can tell you from years of experience that it is extremely validating to have someone not only listen to me, but write down what I say and put it on a wall! It’s “active listening” to the max). The same goes for ideas - we not only listen to someone’s idea, but we sketch it (or ask them to sketch it), then display it on the wall for the rest of the room to notice. The person can literally see their participation being validated.

Plymouth Avenue Corridor design team member Jimmy Lloyd sketches an idea that a resident has to improve housing development in North Minneapolis.

After the event, we encouraged conveners to send a follow-up note to all attendees, not only thanking them for coming, but showing them the resulting next steps - for example, here are the 15 ideas that we are taking into prototyping, or here are the 8 that we will be piloting with your help. And design team members followed up with the people who signed up for their concept, ensuring that the momentum from the event was sustained. We envision that these feedback loops will get longer as the projects move into implementation, but the general gist remains: when you show people that their participation mattered, they are more likely to come back, support you and get involved.

Community events are a momentum multiplier

To be sure, these types of meetings have their drawbacks. You can never get everyone you want in the room at the same time, and someone is usually upset about this. Community meetings are no substitute for in-depth, immersive community research (which is another key part of our design process that we explore in another post).

Furthermore, the process of community input does not guarantee that the very best ideas come out, or rise to the top. There is certainly a role for expertise, and sometimes that expertise is specialized enough that it needs to come from outside the community. Experts should be a part of the event, with the awareness that their expertise is specialized to a technical area, whereas residents’ expertise is specialized to their own lived experiences. Mutual respect is key.

But community events are also an important part of the momentum-building process. The amount of energy in the room serves as a multiplier, showing all attendees that they are part of something larger. And an event can reach a critical mass of people, which is challenging to do during individual or small group interviews. This critical mass opens up the floodgates for more participation, and allows residents to have as heavy or light a touchpoint as they would like. Over 90% of our design team members agreed that their community events helped to build local momentum for this work.

Perhaps most importantly, the community events served as a reminder for design team members of who they were working for. With all of our focus on community ownership, we needed multiple ways for design team members to feel important, capable and accountable. As one design team member put it, “Talking to participants [at the event] was the most valuable part of the Action Lab. This level of engagement solidified my determination to work towards implementation.”

We hope these principles are helpful for change agents like you, as you work towards creating more vibrant, equitable and child-centered communities!